The Titanic Murders - By Max Allan Collins



From the beginning, mystery and controversy have been stow-aways on the Titanic’s crossing into history. The world’s largest, most luxurious steamship—with a First-Class passenger list that was a Who’s Who of its day—the R.M.S. Titanic began her maiden voyage midday April 10, 1912, and ended it prematurely in the midnight hours bridging April 14 and 15, after brushing an iceberg designed by God or fate to challenge the naively arrogant men who had deemed the ship unsinkable.

But no one is certain how many died on that clear starry night in icy Atlantic waters. The American inquiry into the disaster came up with 1,517 dead, the British tallied 1,490, while the British board of trade said 1,503, and various respected authorities today cite figures that range as low as 1,502 and as high as 1,523. What none of these authorities, past or present, cites are the two deaths aboard the Titanic that preceded the sinking.

The two murders.

Before this tale begins proper and I take my proper place next to the Wizard of Oz—behind the curtain—I would like to share with my readers how I came to learn of the Titanic murders, and how this fascinating historical footnote came to elude those far better, and more knowledgeable, Titanic scholars who have preceded me.

It began, as does so much in modern life, with a phone call.

Like most authors, I am frequently contacted by strangers, would-be collaborators who have a wonderful idea, or a fascinating life story, and all that’s left for me to do is write it up. Everyone who has ever been involved in a crime (as a victim or a perpetrator) or who has survived a war (World War II or Vietnam, most frequently) is convinced that theirs was a unique experience, and that New York publishing and Hollywood studios are clamoring for the opportunity to throw money at them for sharing their story with a lucky, waiting world.

This is rarely the case, of course, and these individuals would have a better shot at fame and fortune by telling their timeless tale to the convenience-store clerk while scratching off “instant win” squares on lottery tickets. Besides, authors usually like to cook up their own ideas and, anyway, as a mystery writer, I’m not really suited to ghostwriting someone’s military memoirs or turning Great-Aunt Ida’s fascinating life on the prairie into a manuscript for the Christian bookstore market.

So I was skeptical when I received the phone call, late that Sunday evening, at my Muscatine, Iowa, home, from a would-be collaborator who refused to even identify himself by name.

“You were recommended to me,” the male voice said, a reedy baritone. A hint of an accent was in there, somewhere—French? French-Canadian?

“Recommended how? By who?”

It wasn’t a great connection; obviously long distance, as scratchy as an ancient phonograph record.

“Mutual friend.”

“What mutual friend?”

“I have an idea for you. It’ll make a great book, a great movie.”

I rubbed my eyes. “Really.”

“I read your novel.”

“Which one?”

“The Lindbergh-baby book. Very good. Thorough job.”

Well, now he’d bought himself a little time with me; he had just been about to land in that same limbo where my household dispatches phone solicitors. But compliments, like royalties, are immediately embraced by all writers.

“Thanks,” I said. “I worked hard on that.”

“Interesting case. You think you solved it, the kidnapping?”

“I think my solution holds up as well as anything anybody’s come up with, yeah.”

He paused; while static filled the empty air, I was imagining a face to go with the voice: thirtyish, rugged, smugly smiling….

“You like history. You like to find the mystery in history, don’t you?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of a speciality…. Well, listen, it was nice of you to call. I got one on Amelia Earhart in the works. You might like that, too—you might want to watch for it.”

This is where a fan calling would have asked what the name of the new book was, and when was it coming out. But my vaguely French long-distance caller had an apparent non sequitur for me, instead.

“What about the Titanic?” he asked.

“What about it?”

“Lot of interest. Many books. TV specials. Videos of Ballard’s dives, big sellers.”

I knew, vaguely, what he was talking about. Dr. Robert Ballard’s discovery of the shipwreck on the ocean’s floor had been big news, not long before, and generated big dollars. Even before Ballard, interest in the Titanic never seemed to wane, and I’d known about the famous disaster at sea since childhood. My generation of kids was big on Walter Lord’s book A Night to Remember, and I’d